The language question

1 Feb

After my blogging about going to Germany for a week, I realised that people may not have understood the real reason for this or, that they may be wondering why after 4 years in a country with a different language, I am not fluent already.

The main reason is because in Switzerland the language that is spoken is not the same as in Germany (“High German” as it is known) but Swiss German. The differences between the two are many and varied. So much so, that Germans who come to Switzerland to work or on holiday have difficulty in understanding the Swiss.

There is the well-known quote of the Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw who said:

England and America are two countries divided by a common language

I would say that this is true of the difference between Swiss German and High German as well. An example may help with my explanation. The German word for “taste” is actually the word that Swiss Germans uses for “smell”. So there could be a misunderstanding, when a Swiss German asks a German colleague, if they have smelt how bad the toilet is. The German will understand that this to mean “have you tasted how bad the toilet is”. This leads to confusion all round and quite a few puzzled looks in the office.

It is not just the words that might be confusing. The grammar and the sounds of the words are completely different in both languages It can take some time for a native German speaker to grasp the meaning of the Swiss language.

Of course the Swiss are also able to speak High German. In fact, they normally write emails, read books and newspapers in High German but only speak in Swiss German. A teacher once explained to me that Swiss people don’t like speaking in High German because this is the language that they are forced to speak at school. A child growing up in Switzerland will learn to talk Swiss German with friends and family. They will only learn High German when they finally begin school. Very early on, a child is programmed to associate speaking Swiss German with spending time with friends and family and having fun and High German with homework and school.

As this isn’t complicated enough, there are different Swiss dialects which are only spoken in certain regions. The word for “boy” is different in the Canton of Zurich to the word that they use in other cantons. The verb “to shop” is different in Zurich to the verb that is used to mean the exact same thing in Bern, which is only an hour away.

I would say that this is a little bit like the different words we use in England for a bread roll. Where I was brought up, I would use the word “barm” to refer to a sandwich roll but regional variations can be anything from bap, roll, barmcake, buns, bin lids, cob, teacake. I actually looked this up and there are 18 regional variations for a bread roll in the UK.

But teacake, for the record, is most certainly not a savoury bread. It is a sweet bread with currants in it that you have with slathered on it with a cup of tea on the side. I would just like to make that absolutely clear.

From the context of the sentence, it is normally easy to work out what the speaker is saying but it requires some effort from the listener to decipher what is being said. My point is that even Swiss Germans can have some difficultly in understanding each other.

When you put all of this together, you can see what my, and many others in my situation, problem is. There is a complete disconnect between the High German that I am taught in my language school and the language that is spoken in the office, in the supermarket and in the street. I spent the first year and a half wondering if I was learning another language because I was still struggling to understand what was being said to me and around me.

download-3Going to Germany was a tactic to hear as much German as was possible and to reinforce
how much I could understand and function in the language that I have been struggling to learn for so long.

I am not sure if I know of any other languages where there is this disconnect between the spoken and written language. It is completely confusing for someone trying to learn. In France and Italy for example, the language that you would hear after leaving in the language school would be the same as the language as on the street and the learning process would be accelerated.

For now, I am concentrating on getting my High German perfect but if I am to stay here longer term I will need to learn some Swiss German. I already have an okay-ish understanding of the numbers for example (so I can at least give the cashier at the supermarket the right money for my shopping, which was virtually impossible when I first arrived) and I know the days of the week. Except for Tuesday. I can never remember the word for Tuesday. But as I don’t consider Tuesday to be so much of an important day of the week, I am happy to let that one slide.

 

 

 

5 Responses to “The language question”

  1. emma February 1, 2017 at 10:51 pm #

    So interesting! We’re looking at making the move to Zurich shortly and I’ve started learning German. It’s so weird learning a language to move to a place that actually isn’t spoken there! But learning a specific dialect of Swiss German to a very specific region seems kind of pointless too!

    • ourgirlinzurich February 2, 2017 at 5:19 am #

      Hi Emma! Congrats on the upcoming move and thank you for following my blog. If you have any questions about the move or would like to know anything else about living in Switzerland, feel free to get in touch here or via lyndsaylomax@hotmail.com

      • emma February 2, 2017 at 11:59 pm #

        Awesome, thanks for that! I might just take you up on that 🙂

  2. Confuzzled Bev February 2, 2017 at 11:45 am #

    I lived in Germany for 8 years and I still have trouble with Swiss German! It is getting better though 🙂

    • ourgirlinzurich February 2, 2017 at 2:02 pm #

      I’m glad I’m not the only one struggling with it! I think the key is perseverance 😃

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